Ca Kho Tieu (Vietnamese Sweet and Spicy Fish)

Oh, hello.

Please don’t think I forgot about you. I haven’t. I swear!

February has been a chaotic month. It’s the month I decided to finally buckle down and give myself a deadline, so that this hypothetical paper that’s been hanging over my head would finally become un-hypothetical. Which, really, is all part of a grander scheme to make a hypothetical degree become un-hypothetical.

It’s also the month where I’m starting to teach again, at a small, lovely little lab section at a local university. For some reason, this has led to all these thoughts about what to do after graduation filling my head, most of which involve, you guess it, teaching. So when I’m not working on this paper, I’ve been excitedly researching teacher-y things I can do and daydreaming of life post-hypothetical-degree.

All that is to say that once this paper gets out of my hands (and into my boss’ hands), I’ll breathe a sigh of relief and be able to look more alive over here.

In the meantime, I’ll be relying on simple, quick, and tasty recipes like this one. Well, that and leaving Nathan to work his magic in the kitchen. Just this week, he’s been filling the fridge with Heidi’s coconut red lentil soup with farro, Ursula’s Shrimp Romesco, and a whole mess of soy-glazed eggplants and mushrooms for snacking/sandwich-making.

I know. I’m one lucky girl.

Adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford.

½ lb fish fillets (a firm, white-fleshed fish works well here)
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, and more for serving
2 Tbsp brown sugar
¼ cup warm water
2 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 shallot, sliced thinly into rings
2-3 Thai red chilies, sliced (optional)
2-3 stalks lemongrass
3-4 scallions

Getting organized: Rinse the fish fillets under water and pat dry with paper towels. Depending on the size of the fillets, you may need to cut them into smaller pieces to fit into the skillet. But don’t go crazy because you want the fish pieces to still be large and easy to flip later. Sprinkle both sides of the fish with black pepper and set aside.

Using the warm water, dissolve the sugar and stir in the fish sauce.

Trim the lemongrass stalks so you’re left with just the bottom pale-colored sections. If there are any tough, dry-looking layers on the outside, peel those off and discard. Mince finely.

Trim the ends of the scallions. Then, using the side of your knife, smash the scallions flat, especially the root ends. Cut into 2-inch sections and set aside.

Putting it all together: Heat a cast-iron skillet (or any heavy skillet) over high heat. Add in the oil and swirl around to coat the pan. Add in the shallots and allow them to fry until golden brown. Using a slotted spoon or chopsticks, remove the shallots and set on paper towels to drain and crisp up, leaving the oil in the pan.

If you turned off the stove after the last step, reheat the oil in the pan over high heat. Add lemongrass and stir for 5-10 seconds. Add the fish fillets into the hot oil and sear for 10-15 seconds. Using a spatula, carefully turn the fish over and allow it to sear on the other side.

Add in the liquid ingredients and let it come to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and add in the scallions and red chilies. Cook for 5 min, uncovered. Flip the fish over and cook for another 5 min. If the sauce looks like it’s cooking off too quickly, lower the heat. You want the sauce to reduce to a syrupy consistency but not completely evaporate.

You can serve the dish in the skillet (careful! hot!) or transfer it to a shallow serving dish. Top with more black pepper and the reserved fried shallots.

Oh and you did remember to make rice, no? ;)

Yield: 2 servings for dinner, with rice
Time: 20 min


  1. Laura said:
    20 March 2011 at 9:58 pm

    This cracked me up bc I always forget to make rice (or noodles but usually rice). As a matter of fact I did just tonight. This looks awesome, I owned this book before I started eating seafood-clearly I need to go check it out.

    P.S. Good luck with finishing your degree. I was with my husband when he finished his so I know what hell it can be!

    • angi said:
      21 March 2011 at 6:11 pm

      Thanks Laura — I’ll definitely need the luck to get this thing finished! ;)

  2. Amar said:
    27 March 2011 at 9:00 pm

    god every time i look at your blog i get so hungry. i’ma send this recipe to aliza and demand she make it. (she replied “why don’t YOU make it?” i sez “because”)

    • angi said:
      30 March 2011 at 9:47 am

      Thanks dude! But hey I agree with Aliza – this is a pretty easy recipe, Amar! Definitely a good one to start with and before you know it, you’ll be the king of the kitchen! ;)

  3. Michelle said:
    7 June 2011 at 5:48 pm

    I tried this tonight! What a yummy recipe… I made a side dish of veggies too.

    • angi said:
      11 June 2011 at 9:17 am

      Awesome – so glad you liked it, Michelle!

  4. julie said:
    6 February 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Very glad I saw this on Gojee and thank you so much for posting this recipe! So perfect for tonight since I’m kind of craving for some fish fillet! :D

    Now off to get some lemongrass.. ( and maybe try it with coco milk just as one of the commentor mentioned).

    Have a great day! :)

    • angi said:
      9 February 2012 at 10:09 pm

      Thanks so much for dropping by, Julie! I hope you enjoyed this – and now you reminded me that I also want to try this with coconut milk! :)

  5. nhung said:
    24 July 2012 at 11:26 am

    This recipe sounds good but its not authentic ca kho it should be in a sweet brown caramel sauce and cooked for a long time

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